RC September 2022 Blog
Interviewer: Rachel Holly
Interviewee: Rebecca Contreras
The tragedy and loss of September 11th is still with us all, 21 years later. Even those too young to remember the events of that day still understand the gravity of what happened and how it changed the course of U.S. history. As we approach the anniversary, Rebecca Contreras shares her unique perspective of that day, the view from the White House.
You share your story of witnessing September 11th at the White House in your book Lost Girl. For those who haven’t read your book yet, could you provide some context for where you were in your career and the work you were doing at the White House?
Our entire family had only recently moved to DC so that I could work at the White House. I had worked for President Bush in Texas when he was governor, and he had invited me to join his presidential team. So this was the September of his first year in office and I was working in an area called Presidential Personnel (PPO), in charge of staffing 4000 presential appointees. This is a huge undertaking, and one of the most powerful tasks an American president has in his authority, to put people in place across the entire federal government and enact his policy. My portfolio included about 1200 of those 4000 positions. The election recount in Florida meant that we had a bit of a late start so our PPO team was still hustling to get everyone in place. This was also the start of fall in DC, a season I had never experienced before outside of Texas. One of the perks of being a Commissioned Officer was having a space inside the White House complex, so I clearly remember driving in that morning, admiring the foliage and falling leaves, taking in the beauty and the cooler temperatures, and at the same time feeling the awe and humility of serving on the president’s team driving into the complex of the West Wing.
In my normal routine I would arrive around 8:45 and have my coffee in the old executive office, even using one of Nixon’s old desks, and my view was the West Wing press corps lawn. That morning there was an added excitement in the air because the fall White House internship program had just started and I had two interns that were working with me and there were hundreds of interns that had literally just landed in DC and making their way, ready to serve the new president for the semester. Also on my team were three deputies and several volunteers that morning and we were all gearing up to orientate these new students to get to the business at hand - as the president called it “the People’s business”. As usual we had the TVs on in the office showing the news, but my TX was on mute, and I had my back towards the screens as I looked out onto that beautiful West Wing lawn and drank my coffee, reflecting on the awe of the role I had been asked to undertake all the exciting initiatives we had planned in the coming months.
All of a sudden, right outside my office, I hear chaos. People were running, yelling, screaming. I turned around and that’s when I saw, on the muted television, the first images of the attack. None of us there knew what had happened which just accelerated the sense of fear in everyone in the building. In stark contrast to the lovely, serene view I had of the West Wing lawn just a few minutes prior, I now saw hundreds and hundreds of people running for their lives across that scene. Keep in mind that at the White House there are the political staffers – people the President takes along with him to the White House, like me – and then there are the career staffers, about 500+ people total who run the day-to-day of the White House such as cooks, cleaners, and electricians, staff support. Everyone was fleeing the White House and West Wing, and moments later the Secret Service came in literally screaming at me to evacuate me and other members of the President’s team to a secure location.
What was it like, being in the White House as events unfolded?
It was an incredibly scary time for all of us there; we were separated from family, all phone services were shut down in order to thwart terrorist communication, and we knew that America was under attack but of course we had no idea how this was going to change the trajectory of life in America.
Word had gotten around that one of the terrorist’s planes might be targeting the White House. As I was leaving the building (I had tried to stay with my staff and my very tearful interns but the Secret Service had to separate me from them), I could hear some jets overhead, very low and loud, and that was frightening. We didn’t know at the time that these were fighter jets since we couldn’t see them, and that they had been sent in for protection of the air space above us. And of course we later learned that the plane that was brought down in Pennsylvania was actually planning to hit the White House.
Honestly the whole morning was like a scene from the block buster film, Independence Day, when the aliens were attacking. So much chaos and confusion, people fearing for their lives, uncertain what was happening. But through it all, I also felt a sense of purpose, as if my husband and I were in DC for a reason. I had the distinct feeling that it needed to be President Bush who was going to lead us through this monumental turning point in history. It’s easy for anyone to criticize when you don’t feel the full burden of responsibility and leadership that a president endures, especially in such an extraordinary situation. We knew he would have to make some very difficult decisions, and he did it in a very agile way with tremendous resolve during an unprecedented time, while the whole world watched.
After that day, how did life at the White House life change?
After I finally got home later that afternoon, I was physically and emotionally drained and I just crashed on my couch, relieved to have my family together and safe. I woke up later and there was a voicemail from my boss Clay Johnson saying that the President wants everyone back at work tomorrow morning, business as usual. President Bush didn’t want the terrorists to disrupt us or affect our ability to govern and lead. So the next morning I made my way back to the White House, David returned to his job at SBA also serving the president, and we all experienced the very surreal moment of being back there in the White House just 24 hours after the US was attacked but knowing we were about to be a part of something great.
What struck you most about the weeks and months that followed?
I tell the complete story in Lost Girl, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to that time serving the president after 9/11. A week to the day after 9/11 we had a meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office on personnel and we thought surely we wouldn’t be seeing him that day, and probably not for a long time, as he dealt with the aftermath and navigated a new era in foreign relations. I was certain that personnel would be at the bottom of his priority list now, considering how much the world had changed. But he was there, front and center, ready to continue the business at hand. There were new protocols of course; for example, he and the Vice President were never in the same place after that. But he didn’t cancel the personnel meeting and the first thing he said to us when he sat down was “thank you”. He thanked us for coming back to serve. We all shared with him that we were praying for him, during this difficult time, and he responded by saying, “Pray, ask everyone you know to pray, we are going to need God’s sovereignty more than ever now.” I was just in awe.
What stood out the most to me, watching him and my boss Clay in action, was the resolve and fortitude of their leadership as well as the leadership of those the President had put on his closest team. He continued to surround himself with such smart people, which is especially important during a time of crisis. This really helped to shape my own leadership style going forward. I believe it is so important today when we face tragedy or loss or even bumps in the road that we know who we are, that we know our center and lead from that center. I saw President Bush do that, lead from his center convictions and core values. Another thing that struck me was how much more driven the White House team was after 9/11. Keep in mind that we were already working 6 days a week, 12-14 hours day, so these were long days to begin with. But those of us who were there to serve the president, we felt a new energy, a sense of reform, feeling that we were there for a purpose much bigger than we had ever anticipated when we first arrived. We felt this new bond form, that will remain forever strong, as we worked closely together for a cause.
On the anniversary of September 11th, what do you hope remains with Americans?
No matter how many crises we face as Americans, especially in all of the divisiveness of today’s world, we can never forget 9/11 and how we came together like never before for a common cause. We were united – Democrats, Republicans, Independents. I feel that that has been lost, unfortunately. So my hope is that we take this anniversary of that tragic day and we remember: we are still one America. We are still one People with one goal, to keep this country thriving. We are the people of America, and we are not defined by our political leaders and party lines. I tell people: Impact where you are, in your communities. Love and serve your neighbor. I saw us do that on 9/11 and I really hope that on this 9/11 anniversary we reflect on how we can find ways to do that again – working together in our local communities, and as Americans in this incredible country we have built together.
To read more about Rebecca’s experience working in the White House and her transformational journey to success, you can order your personally signed copy of Lost Girl from rebeccacontreras.com/lostgirl.